The cab dropped us off at a gas station, and we started to walk down a side street. The asphalt glowed in the early morning sun. My wife and I had never visited this part of San José, and we were too groggy to appreciate the new sights. We followed the directions specifically: 100 meters east of the gasolinera. We found the specified corner, and then we stopped and gawked.
We had expected one man and one vehicle — a Jeep Grand Cherokee, parked on the curb. Instead we found two men, wearing camouflage cargo pants and bandannas over their faces, and a Jeep half-covered in tarp. The men glanced at us. They looked like cartel hitmen. Then they went back to work, waxing the exposed half of the car.
After all, we now need two limbs to control foot pedals, and two to aim a wheel in the direction we’re headed. (Well, at least one to aim, one to text while driving). For nearly five million years we were fine getting around with two feet when we had to cover a distance. Then, in the last century, we’ve more or less abandoned our feet to become car monkeys.
A person who eschews a car and walks by choice today seems willfully archaic, as curious a specimen as someone choosing to play professional football in a leather helmet.
Why would you choose to walk when the gods of modern technology have provided us with cars? We’re in an age of rapid movement, and walkers seem to be in no hurry; many are known to stop to talk to others, or to admire some streetside oddity that’s captured their attention. “English has no positive word for lingering on the street,” wrote British transportation consultant John Whitelegg. “In English, slowness in general is often treated with pity (a slow learner, retarded) with derision (sluggish) or with suspicion (loitering).”
The Victorians were apparently much plagued by fairies. Accounts suggest that these little creatures flitted around the margins of mid and late 19th century life, all skittish and shy and showing up when one least expected them. Painters such as Richard Dadd made a career of depicting these beings of “a middle nature between man and angels;” in 1894 William Butler Yeats famously implored, “Faeries, come take me out of this dull world.” They were most readily spotted in Europe, but were also intermittently active across the Atlantic, some possibly having arrived on these shores as stowaways with Irish immigrants.
Fairies persisted beyond Queen Victoria and even King Edward VII. The noted Cottingley fairies appeared in grainy black and white photographs shot in 1917, which depicted wee, winged fairies gamboling with two young sisters. These became even more famous after Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle lent his not-inconsiderable credibility… More…
“I don’t hear birdsongs in the morning, like I did when I was a kid,” said Jim Stone, executive director at Walk San Diego. “They’re slowly going away. Things in our lives change, but because they change in slow increments over a long period of time, we become accustomed to what’s new.”
Stone and I weren’t actually talking about birds. We were talking about walking and walkability in America. About how our access to places on foot alters subtly from one generation to the next, almost imperceptibly. “What we witness and what we encounter becomes the new status quo, the new benchmark in how we make assessments,” Stone said. “If people would remember a time when they could walk freely, they could make a comparison. The problem is, that time is getting further away from us.”
Cars are the primary predators of the modern urban ecosystem. They roam at will, and kill some 400,000 pedestrians worldwide every year — about 4,500 annually in the United States.
Faced with evolutionary pressure, pedestrians will do what other species have done over many millennia: evolve and adapt, such that the fittest will survive. This notion is at least a century old. “What is the future of the pedestrian, anyway?” the New York Times asked in 1908. “Darwin might tell us if he were here, but he is not here and we must look elsewhere for enlightenment.”
The Nano, made by Indian car manufacturer Tata, is billed as “the people’s car.” We’ve seen this sort of thing before. The first time was in Europe — Germany to be precise. The car was the Volkswagen, which means, quite literally, “The People’s Car.” It was Hitler’s idea, more or less. He wanted to build a car for the common man. “A car for the people, an affordable Volkswagen, would bring great joy to the masses and the problems of building such a car must be faced with courage,” he proclaimed at the 1934 Berlin Auto Show. It would be of simple design and able to carry two adults and three children at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. Hitler asked Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to take up the job and he did. Hitler and Porsche started up a little company called Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH (Society… More…
Yuca and his “business partner,” Carlitos, were younger than the usual maquina drivers. Their 1950s Chevy was nicer, too, than the average maquina: shiny lavender exterior, smooth cream-colored, faux-leather seat in the front, a stereo that flashed red and blue lights. Something like what James Dean might drive if he were a young Cuban today. They hadn’t reupholstered the back seat yet, and it was still a dirty, greenish hue, the vinyl roping along the edges broken and scratchy. It snagged on girls’ skirts and grocery bags. They had their music turned up high when I hopped in; they listened to a mixed CD of reggaeton interspersed with Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. Skinny Carlitos collected the money from passengers while chubby Yuca took care of driving. Carlos spied someone trying to wave them down and Yuca eased the car to soft stops without interrupting his soft, tone-deaf whistling. They… More…
“I have a car,” he whispered in my ear while we danced, and for a moment I was tempted to whisper back, “Me too. It’s a Corolla. Do you know anything about how to fix window seals?”
For the last six months I danced every week at a place with a $3 cover called Andrea’s Cha Cha Cha. On voice mail messages I left for friends in Portland, meant to entice them into coming out and dancing with me, I called it Andrea’s Chach or Andrea’s Cha Cha, and my friends rarely called or even texted back to say they couldn’t make it. So I started to go alone after work. I paid my $3 cover and made my way down to the basement where I hopped onto a bar stool in my work clothes and waited to… More…
My last day at NAIAS is the first day the public’s allowed in. Before this, the COBO Center was open only to the press, and then only to people in the industry (or anyone willing to spend $75, instead of $12, to get in). But through next Sunday, several hundred thousand people will stream through — men in car-brand shirts and hats, women with books that they’ll read in the food court.
Auto shows excite the kind of people who are willing to put out money for what amounts to a walk-through commercial. They grab the large, glossy bags manufactures give out for free; they sometimes grab… More…